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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-three GHOSTS



athan wasn't a fan of parties. If not for his brother guilting him, he would have stayed home. Charlie was the only family Nathan had, and at 67 with no kids of his own, it was the least he could do to go to his nephew Jack's 'New Job Party'. He hadn't showered or dressed nicely, but he'd shown up.

From a young age, Jack had wanted to work for the UK Border Agency just like his uncle Nathan, and now he too was an immigration officer. Nathan didn't like to think about his own time in the UKBA. His years working the docks, arresting smugglers and turning away migrants weren't his proudest, but he'd done what he was paid to do, and now it was over. Jack would work at the airport, a completely different environment and system and Nathan was glad for that.

"That's bollocks." A voice carried above the chatter in the room. Nathan looked over to see his other nephew Jeremy sitting on the sofa with Jack and Jack's girlfriend Amaya, a can of lager in his hand. He was looking at Amaya with raised eyebrows. "That stuff is all fake."

"Come on, give it a rest," Jack said, putting a protective arm around Amaya's shoulders.

"You believe her?" Jeremy scoffed. "You actually believe she can talk to ghosts?"

Tossing her ebony hair, Amaya's face flushed. "I'll prove it to you. We can do a séance right now."

At the word 'séance,' Jack and Jeremy's mother Anne joined the conversation. "Leave it alone, Jeremy. Now, Amaya, just because you've got Gypsy in your blood doesn't mean you can do your fortune-telling and demon nonsense under my roof."

"I've got Ruska Roma heritage," Amaya corrected, bristling. "And a séance isn't demon nonsense. It's speaking to the deceased to learn the truths of the past and to divine the future."

"Let's see, then," goaded Jeremy. "Get your deceased to reveal the past and uncover the future."

"With pleasure," she said with mocking sweetness.

Nathan felt uncomfortable. He wished Jeremy wouldn't antagonize people when he was drinking, but more than that, he hoped Jeremy was right. Nathan didn't know much about séances, though he'd heard enough to make him wonder if it wasn't all rubbish. Either way, the prospect of having his past transgressions laid bare in front of his family wasn't one he relished. He moved toward the doorway.

Amaya whispered animatedly to Jack, who made pacifying gestures before speaking to the group. "Look, let's give it a try. It won't take long, and it might shut Jeremy up."

"Whatever," Jeremy said dismissively. He addressed the group, eyeing everyone in turn. "Right, if she guesses your past, you have to fess up. She could say anything about the future, but we can't prove any of that wrong." Nathan avoided his eyes, but Jeremy didn't seem to notice and turned back to Amaya. "Fair enough?"

In answer, Amaya calmly moved across the room to the dining table. Nathan watched the other family members seat themselves around it as she dug in her purse for several small tea candles.

Jeremy snorted. "You carry those around with you?"

She didn't respond, in fact, she seemed to have lost all interest in the others as she set the candles up in a circle on the table. "I'll need quiet while I call the spirits." She ignored another of Jeremy's scoffs. "Everyone join hands."

As Nathan's family members joined hands, a subtle change came over their demeanor. Even Jeremy seemed placated as Amaya's quiet focus shifted the mood of the room. He couldn't believe they were going to go through with this. Charlie reached out to take Nathan's hand, but Nathan pulled away. "I'll just watch," he stammered.

"We must all be connected for the séance to work," Amaya said, seemingly engrossed in her preparations.

"Come on, Nate, sit down," Charlie said. "It's just a bit of fun."

Her paraphernalia spread unintelligibly across the table, Amaya seemed satisfied. She then placed a glass of water at the centre of the circle of lit candles and stared at it. Her breathing slowed. Nathan knew of her heritage, though Jack hadn't been with Amaya for very long. He briefly considered and then dismissed the possibility that she'd contrived this demonstration; if he'd been goaded like that, he'd have put Jeremy in his place too.

As he deliberated, Amaya patiently waited. She looked up at him for a brief moment before returning to her study of the glass. Reaching his decision, Nathan took his place next to Charlie. Amaya began to speak in a low voice. "Spirits, are you here? If you're here, cause a ripple in the water."

Everyone watched the glass of water in protracted silence. Nathan's tightened his grip to stop his hand trembling. Charlie winced, startling Anne, but her look of concern was interrupted by a gasp from Jack. He was staring wide-eyed at the glass. Nathan could just make out the tiniest ripple crossing the surface of the water.

Amaya closed her eyes. "I hear you, spirits," she whispered and fell still. The silence stretched, and none of the group moved to break it. Suddenly Amaya swayed and jerked forward, catching herself before hitting the table. "Someone here hides their past," she gasped. "They didn't act when innocents sought shelter. They hardened their heart and two people died." She shut her eyes tight. "A mother and child."

Bile rose in Nathan's throat. An image possessed him; he saw a defeated woman with a hollow stare and a child in her arms, too tired to cry. He remembered herding her and others onto the boat that would take them back across the North Sea. The woman suddenly found the strength to cry out to him, he who, in her eyes, was the embodiment of a door closing on her hopes. She cried that she had to join her family, that they wouldn't survive without her, but he'd given a nod, and the ship had left, taking with it the woman, her son and her cries. He'd heard her long after the ship departed and her cries echoed in his head now as Amaya began to speak again.

"Who harbors this secret?" she asked urgently as Nathan surfaced from his thoughts. The room was so quiet that Nathan could hear his heart beating. Amaya suddenly stiffened and fell forward, knocking the glass to the floor. Blanching, her eyes grew wide. "They say… they say the person who holds this secret will pay with their life. They say tonight at midnight, that person will die." The room went deathly quiet.

Jeremy burst out laughing. "Classic! You should be on TV."

The thick atmosphere evaporated as Jack punched Jeremy on the arm. People got up and returned to their seats and their drinks in the lounge, but Nathan stared at Amaya. Their gaze briefly met as she allowed herself to be helped up by Jack. Her eyes were dark wells, emotionless and threatening to drown him.

While Jack fussed over Amaya, who was apologizing to Anne and saying she needed to go home and rest, Nathan glanced at Charlie and then to the door. With a look of understanding, Charlie nodded. Nathan got to his car and drove away without turning back.

As he drove, he dwelt over what had just transpired. When the news of another migrant drowning had come all those years ago, he'd dreaded the details. The familiarity of the headline deadened the shock for the general public, but for him, there was no easy escape. He'd read every paper, every article he could find trying to relieve his guilt, but all of them gave the same stark details: twelve missing, presumed dead after the ship struck an unidentified object and sank. The mother and child were never found.

Could Amaya know? Jack couldn't have told her; he didn't know. Had someone at the UKBA published it? Why would they? It was sad, but Nathan's story wasn't unique. A whisper in the back of his head voiced the thoughts he was trying so hard to bury. 'If she really spoke to spirits, was something coming for him tonight?'

Nathan let out a manic laugh. That was ridiculous. If the ghosts of every person he'd deported came back to haunt him, it'd have happened before now. No, Amaya had been like all the mediums he'd ever seen on TV. She'd made vague assertions and given a performance. 'An unsettlingly good performance,' the whispering voice added.

She'd said a mother and child. Negligence caused more deaths than violence, he reminded himself, but he was guiltless. If inaction implied guilt then, morally, everyone risked becoming murderers by ignoring the homeless. It had to be a coincidence that she'd chosen a mother and child.

It was dark by the time Nathan got to his empty house. A cold rain was falling as he jogged for the sheltered porch. After taking a bottle of whiskey from the kitchen, he sat in front of the television to drown his anxieties. He watched, but his mind was too unsettled to take anything in.

A small movement caught his eye and he looked towards it. He found himself staring into the large mirror on the mantlepiece. He'd angled it toward the back window so that he could look into the garden from his place on the sofa. The view was as familiar as his own reflection, but something was wrong with it. There was a pale speck near the base of the tree in his yard that wasn't supposed to be there. The wind blew, shifting the shadows around the round object. It resembled a pale face.

Nathan froze, his heart thumping in his chest. It was the face of the migrant woman. He rubbed his eyes with clammy hands and looked again. The face was gone.

He gave into his paranoia and went to the window. The dim porch light showed that there was no one outside. He looked at the clock; it was eleven thirty. A shiver ran through him as he recalled Amaya's words during the séance.

Telling himself he was being ridiculous, Nathan went into the kitchen to make tea, hoping to find some calm in the familiar action. As he stirred in the milk, a shrill scream exploded in his ears. He jerked his head up. He knew that voice. he heard it in his reoccurring nightmares. Trembling, he listened, trying to locate the source of the sound, but only the echo of the migrant woman's screams pounded in his ears.

No longer able to talk himself out of his fear, he went through the first floor locking all the doors and windows. He knew he was being paranoid, but he felt better as soon as he was sealed inside. He settled back down on the sofa with his tea, trying and failing not to glance at the mirror again. The image remained unblemished by the ghostly face.

Several minutes later, Nathan thought he heard a noise over the sound of the television. He strained to listen over the news, but it was too loud. He muted the television and waited in silence, but he heard nothing more. He put the sound back on but lowered the volume, just in case.

A second noise caught his attention. Immediately he pressed mute. A soft rhythmic creaking was coming from upstairs, as if someone were walking very slowly through the house. Then the footsteps stopped. Nathan glanced at the clock. It was eleven fifty-six. He moved to the bottom of the stairs and listened intently, but the house was silent. His hands shaking, he took an old cricket bat from the cupboard and moved quietly up the stairs.

He paused to listen again on the landing. There was a low rustling coming from his bedroom. He crept towards the door and peered inside. The window was wide open and the wind was blowing the leaves of the oak against the side of the house. A wave of relief washed through him as he went to shut it. He turned out the light and left the room.

A shadow stretched across his feet. Nathan cried out and swung the bat, catching nothing but air. Collecting himself, he saw that the shadow remained still. As he stared at it, it took the shape of a woman and child huddling together in fear, deformed and elongated by the light cast behind them.

Holding his breath, he moved stealthily across the landing toward the source of the light. It was coming from the guest room. Had he turned that light on when he came upstairs? When he looked inside, the room was empty. A curved lamp stood on a table next to a rounded candle in front of the window. It must have cast the shadow. He looked at the small clock on the wall. It was five minutes after midnight.

Just as he breathed a sigh of relief, he felt an excruciating pain in his lower back. Nathan cried out and swung the cricket bat wildly, falling backwards onto the landing when it connected with something solid. He heard a grunt and a muted thud on floor behind him. Hot blood ran over his hands and he gasped as he wrenched a needle-like knife from his back. His head spinning, he craned around to look at what he'd hit.

The dark eyes of the migrant woman he'd sentenced to death glared at him. Once more her cries rang in his ears though the woman's jaw was clenched shut. But no, it wasn't her; this woman was too tall, too young, to be the migrant woman.

Nathan squinted in the dim light that fanned across the hall from the guest room. "Amaya?"

The woman stood shakily, her hand on her bruised cheek. "My real name is Vadoma Pankova." When Nathan didn't respond, she sighed bitterly. "Of course you don't remember her name. Names make the migrants you turn away people, and my mother wasn't a person to you. You sent her and my brother to their deaths."

Panic and buried fear rising inside him, Nathan struggled to his feet gripping the banister to keep from falling down the stairs. He reached out and with a bloodied, shaking hand and gently touched Amaya's face as tears ran down his cheeks. “I'm so sorry.”

"Are you? I thought you'd confess at the séance, beg for the forgiveness of those closest to you. I hoped to forgive you too, but instead, you ran like the coward you really are." Her face was darkened. “My family died because of you.”

“Not me,” he said. "I was just doing my job."

Amaya's dark eyes, so much like her mother's, flickered with a deep burning fury. She grabbed the end of cricket bat in Nathan's hands and shoved it with a force Nathan would never have expected. His balance wavered and his foot slipped off the landing. A sickening crack rang out above the noise of his body tumbling down the stairs. When he finally came to a rest at the bottom, the house was silent once more.

Amaya drew a deep breath, a hot tear rolling down her cheek. She turned and crawled back out the window she's come in by. As she disappeared into the night, she felt the weight she had hoped to lift, grow heavier.




Hallie M. Smith writes a combination of short horror, fantasy and science fiction stories. A list of her published works can be found on www.anatomystory.com and she is on social media on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/h.m.s.author/) and Twitter (@halliewag).

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